It’s Always Something – or – If It Can, It Will (Part 3)

As I recall in the previous part of this adventure, I left everyone hanging over the holidays with a question…I believe it was – have you ever thought of your own mortality when you are sailing along in a fairly good-sized boat and suddenly see a living creature in the water that is bigger than the boat you are on…? This is where the promised “Jonah and the Whale” part comes in.

Well, for the answer to the question, we all had that feeling mid-afternoon the next day almost due West of Cabo San Antonio and right in the middle of the Cozumel Channel, sometimes referred to as the Straight of Campeché.

We were trying to work our way south against a 2 to 3 knot current off our port beam. As I recall, we had just cleaned up from lunch and everyone was on deck enjoying a beautifully clear day when, just aft and to port, we all heard simultaneously a loud “whooshing” sound followed by an even louder slap on the water. Imagine standing in waist deep water with your arm above your head – you smack the water as hard as you can with your flat palm, that was the sound of the slap except about a million times louder.

We all turned to investigate the commotion and what did appear but two large gray whales, not tiny reindeer. They were swimming in unison and evidently had just surfaced and we turned just in time to see their backs arc as they once again dove under. These things were huge! As you recall we were on a forty-plus-foot sailing vessel and we seemed small in comparison. My guess was that they were mates and I seem to remember that whales are monogamous. At least I hoped so. I also remember reading somewhere that sometimes whales mistake the underbodies of sailboats for other whales. We all hoped that the monogamous part was true and they would not come acourtin’.

They continued to match our course at about 100 yards away. It seems, however, as the minutes passed that each surfacing seemed to get closer and closer. We all thought of the Jonah and the Whale story as they continued to get closer. Just one friendly mislaid flap of either of their tales could have put us under in a flash. It might have been further but . . . it seemed they were no further than 100 feet away from our port beam. This was the last we saw of them close-up and personal. I swear one of them winked at me as they changed course and moved away, never to be seen again. …always wondered which one winked.

Believe it or not the rest of the trip went smoothly, that is until we approached the Isla Mujeres anchorage at 0200. We lowered sails, engaged the engine and raised the “Q” flag as we approached the harbor. It was decided we would try to find a spot to anchor and clear customs the next day. Luckily, one of the students confessed to being fluent in Spanish.

If you have ever been boating at night, even in familiar territory, you know that things look much different. We had all studied the chart and consulted the cruising guide for specific information on how to make our entrance. I had left it up to the students to actually identify markers and steer the course in until we found a proper anchoring area. The excitement had finally built to a crescendo as all the students realized that they had successfully found Isla Mujeres much the way Columbus might have. I think in their minds we were there. Well, you know the story about it ain’t over until it’s over.

We had not anchored and were still underway, however, in their exuberance I think the students not only lost track of the identifying markers but at one point started to argue about which direction to steer. The fatigue and frustration obviously had set in and was causing some confusion. One of the students finally said “Okay, if you think you’re right, you take the helm.” I don’t think the student that this message was directed to heard it because I watched in awe at a vacant seat behind the wheel, while everyone was scanning the water looking for aides to navigation and landmarks.

I grabbed the wheel and turned sharply away from one of the landmarks they were looking for – a pier. The fishermen on the pier look frightened, and were audibly mumbling, as we approached them head on. “Okay guys, I know you are tired, but we have to anchor safely in order to get some rest” I said encouragingly. “Just look at your notes and get a sense of where we are. The pier is now “thank God” off our port quarter and we are approaching the number 8 red buoy off our starboard bow.” Everyone finally settled down as we glided out of the narrow channel into the greater expanse of the designated anchorage. The anchoring itself was uneventful, we settled in, took some bearings to check in an hour or so and everyone crashed. I knew I wouldn’t wake up to check our anchoring position if I went to sleep, so I kept an eye open for at least 40 minutes and checked to make sure we weren’t dragging anchor before closing them both for the night, or what was left of it.

Even the bright sun didn’t wake everyone. It wasn’t until a shrimp trawler passed leaving a 4-foot wake which jostled us all out of our bunks. Everyone was in a much better mood and they all decided to pitch in and cook breakfast prior to raising anchor and motoring to the fuel dock. Some of the students would take on the task of checking out the engine and refueling while I and our “fluent” Spanish-speaker cleared customs. I thought there might have been some exaggeration on the part of the student who claimed to be fluent when he was unable to decipher enough of the crew list form, which was in Spanish. “Nombre means name,” I volunteered with a slight scowl. After I completed the crew list with the assistance of “me gringo amigo,” we started the engine and motored toward the fuel dock.

Jonathan, who hadn’t been green in several days now, asked if he could dock the boat alongside. “I’ve never docked a boat this large before,” he said. No one objected so he was left at the helm as everyone else prepared lines and fenders. We were a couple of hundred yards from the fuel dock when I heard Jonathan say, “Capt. Matt, I think we have a problem.” I looked around to find Jonathan spinning the wheel, first in one direction and then in the other, lock to lock, as we continued in a straight line. We had just lost our wheel steering.

Luckily, we had already identified where the manual emergency tiller was when we had problems in the beginning. A precaution, just in case. “Jonathan, throttle off and shift to neutral. Mike, get the emergency tiller. Joe, ready the anchor just in case.” I ordered. Everyone scrambled and in no time we had the emergency tiller in place. “Oh, just another challenge,” I said, as we realized that the emergency tiller was too long and would not pass by the binnacle. To solve the problem we had to rig it backward off the stern and steer by reaching through the stern rail. Of course, because the tiller was backward, it didn’t behave backward as it would if it were rigged forward. (Those who understand tillers will know what this gibberish means.)

Since Jonathan had never docked a boat that big and had never operated a tiller, this shouldn’t be confusing to him, so he was still elected to bring the boat alongside. (We rigged extra fenders.) Actually, he did quite well with some coaching and me operating the throttle and clutch and in no time we were tied at the fuel dock.

The boat was fueled as I, without my embarrassed gringo, walked to the customs house. Luckily, all those years I spent in South Texas, two years of high school Spanish, and two years of college Spanish paid off. Clearing customs was a breeze and I’m sure that it had nothing to do with the fact that the customs agent sounded like he was from Massachusetts.

We decided not to anchor out without a dinghy (if you remember from Part I), rather we would rent a boat slip in which to tie up. Once secure, we assessed our situation and made a list of parts that we needed for steering repairs, repairs for the dinghy and other miscellaneous items. Our plan was to be in port for four days prior to heading home, so we had some time but had to order parts right away.

By the end of the afternoon we had ordered parts that would be at the Cancun Airport the next day. After looking closely at the dinghy, a simple repair kit was not going to solve the problem of the large gash, not to mention the fact that the floorboards had been lost at sea. Another phone call and we had an inflatable liferaft on the way to be delivered with the parts.

Isla Mujeres is a beautiful location and the people are terrific. Most of the restaurants have fresh fish for every meal and by fresh I mean – right before peak meal times they have fish delivered by fishermen from the docks just a couple of blocks or less away.

We had been following the weather all along our trip to Isla, via a portable single side-band receiver. Now that we were in port we would look more closely at the depression that was moving through the Caribbean and was due to move across Cuba in the next 48 to 72 hours. Our search for a weather forecast left us a little empty since the few TVs we could find on the Island did not have cable and they were so blurry as to be worse than bad radar. We did find a boat in the marina with a weather fax, unfortunately it didn’t work. So…being ingenious, and besides he promised his spouse he would, one of the students called home and had his wife tune into the weather channel and hold the receiver close so we could all hear.

As we feared, the depression had become a disturbance and was expected to increase to a tropical storm in the next 24 hours. And…although it was expected to turn to a more northerly direction as it crossed Cuba, you can never tell about such things.

I just realized how long this segment has gotten and we haven’t even received parts, battled the storm or as I promised in the beginning, talked about the celebration as we returned to Key West, let alone some of the other adventures along the way on our return. Looks like I’ll have to make one more installment to finish the story. Stay tuned for the final chapter of Capt. Matt’s great adventure next week.

Trim/Tilt for Outboards and Inboard/Outboards (I/Os)

Al asks: “Are there any articles addressing Out Drive tilt/trim?”

Many outboards and most inboard/outboards (I/Os) come equipped with power trim which raises or lowers the drive unit. In this case the term “trim” refers to the running position of the engine drive unit.

Although most people know that the trimming movement raises and lowers the bow, many are unaware that it also can effect steering and performance. When you trim your drive unit either “in” or “out” you may feel a pull on the steering wheel either to the right or left.

If the steering pull grows beyond a slight pull, an inadvertent release of the wheel can cause the boat to go into a sharp turn and passengers could be thrown around, or even out of, the boat. Be sure to keep a firm grip on the steering wheel.

The three positions of trim and results are as follows:

trimindown.gif (4845 bytes) Trimming In (Down)

  • Lowers the bow
  • Results in quicker planing, especially with a heavy load
  • Improves ride in choppy water
  • Increases steering torque or pull to the right
trimneutral.gif (3995 bytes) Neutral Trimming

  • Lowers the bow
  • Normally results in greater efficiency. (Note that the propeller shaft, which connects the propeller to the drive shaft, is parallel to the surface of the water.)
trimoutup.gif (3404 bytes) Trimming Out (Up)

  • Lifts the bow
  • Increases top speed
  • Increases clearance in shallow waters
  • Increases steering torque or pull to the left
  • In excess, causes the boat to bounce

Operating in Reduced Visibility

Boating during the fall can bring special challenges for the mariner. In addition to the need to be aware of reduced temperatures which can lead to hypothermia , you also at times have to deal with reduced visibility.


Fog is the primary cause of reduced visibility, but haze, heavy rain and snow all present problems for mariners. Boating in these conditions presents two hazards, navigational errors and collisions.

Preventing both of these begins with reducing your speed. The old saying, “Be able to stop in half the distance of visibility” doesn’t appear in the Navigation Rules, but it is very good advice; remember slower is better!

A sailboat with an auxiliary engine, if under sail in fog, should have her engine available for immediate use, but youÂ’ll be better able to listen for fog signals and other helpful sounds if you leave the engine off until itÂ’s needed.

Fog signals must be sounded, the time interval specified in the Navigation Rules is the minimum.


Required Sound Signal
Power-driven vessl making way one prolonged blast every two minutes
Power-driven vessel not making way (stopped) two prolonged blast every two minutes with a one second interval between them
Sailing Vessel, vessel not under command, vessel restricted in ability to maneuver, vessel constrained by draft, vessel engaged in fishing and a vessel towing or pushing another vessel. one prolonged blast followed by two short blasts every two minutes

Vary your interval so that there is no possibility of your signals being in step with another vesselÂ’s, thereby preventing you from hearing them. Listening for another vesselÂ’s fog signals is just as important as sounding your own. If you have crew aboard, post a lookout well forward and consider having another person aft if possible. The lookout should listen as well as look. Listen for other vessels, the sound of aids to navigation, breaking surf, and other helpful sounds. Lookouts are especially important if your helm station is inside. Switch bow and stern lookouts occasionally to provide some variety and increase alertness.

If your engines are noisy, periodically shift into idle, or even shut them down for a few minutes to listen for faint fog signals. The transmission of sound in foggy conditions is tricky, if you hear something, donÂ’t jump to a quick conclusion about its direction and distance, listen some more.

If several craft are traveling together, it is advisable that they stay close in a column formation in which closely following vessels aren’t directly behind the leader so they can easily steer clear if the lead vessel stops suddenly. If the fog is so thick that it is hazardous for them to be within sight of each other, each vessel should tow a floating object such as an empty fuel container or a cushion well astern on a line of approximately 150 feet. Then, each vessel can keep its “station” in column by keeping that object in sight, rather than the craft ahead.


Understanding the Danger of Propeller Strikes

A typical propeller.In the news recently was a report of a man who was tubing getting severely injured when his leg was hit by the propeller of the boat that was pulling him. That urged me to remind all boaters of the danger of propeller strikes.

Did you know?

  • A typical three-blade propeller running at 3,200 rpm can inflict 160 impacts in one second.
  • A typical recreational propeller can travel from head to toe on an average person in less than one tenth of a second.
  • Most propeller accidents CAN be prevented!

What Can You Do?

    1. Wear your engine cut-off switch lanyard and your life jacket at ALL times. If the lanyard is removed from the switch, the engine will shut off.
    2. Assign a passenger to keep watch around the propeller area of your boat when people are in the water.
    3. Consider purchasing propeller safety devices for your boat.


Safety Tips

  • Before starting your engine, walk to the stern and look in the water to make certain there is no one near your propeller (people near the propeller may not be visible from the helm).
  • Never allow passengers to board or exit your boat from the water when engine(s) are running – even at idle and in neutral your propeller may continue to spin.
  • Educate passengers about the location and danger of the propeller(s).
  • Call attention to and discuss any propeller waning labels around your boat.
  • Be especially alert when operating in congested areas and never enter swimming zones.
  • Take extra precautions near boats that are towing skiers or tubers.
  • Never permit passengers to ride on the bow, gunwale, transom, seat backs, or other locations where they might fall overboard.
  • Children should be watched carefully while onboard.
  • Establish clear rules for swim platform use, boarding ladders, and seating (if possible, passengers should remain seated at all times).
  • If someone falls overboard, STOP ! Then slowly turn the boat around, and keep the person in sight as you approach. Assign a passenger to continuously monitor the person in the water. Turn your engine off FIRST and then bring the person to safety.
  • NEVER reverse your boat to pick someone up out of the water. If necessary, go around again.

Safety Devices

A variety of safety devices are available to help prevent propeller strikes:

  • Wireless cut off switches
  • Propeller guards
  • Ringed propellers
  • Propulsion alternatives (jet drive)
  • Interlocks
  • Sensors
  • Anti-feedback steering

Crew Overboard

You are operating a powerboat on a fair sea when a crew member falls overboard on the port side. You should take a hard turn to the _______?

Boats react differently than cars and actually are steered from the stern and rotate around a pivot point. This pivot point is approximately one-third of the way aft from the bow when moving forward. If you find yourself in a crew overboard situation you should turn in the direction of the person falling overboard. In the case of this question, you should turn to port. This will move the stern, and subsequently, the propeller to starboard and away from the person in the water.

Thanks to Alan Richard who pointed out that using the word “passenger” could infer that it was a person who paid a consideration in return for passage. If this were the case, you would have to have a USCG license .

Thanks also to David Moore who, if I may paraphrase, said the direction you turn might depend on the relationship you have with the person overboard.

How Locks Work

Locks are used to move boats between bodies of water that have different levels. This example, the St. Lucie Lock, is one in a series of five locks that allow boats to traverse the Okeechobee Waterway across the State of Florida from Stuart to Ft. Myers. When going east to west, you are lifted up by two locks to get to the Lake Okeechobee level and then after leaving the lake you are lowered down again by three different locks to get back to sea level at Ft. Myers.

As you approach a lock you should contact the lockmaster via VHF radio. The channel the lockmaster monitors may vary from area to area. There should be a sign posted at the entrance of the lock with instructions as to how to contact the lockmaster.

Use caution as you approach the lock and pay attention to the “traffic signal” at the lock entrance. If the signal is red you should stay well clear and keep an eye out for boats leaving the lock. Once the gates to the lock entrance are fully open and all traffic has exited the lock, the signal will turn green indicating that it is safe to enter the lock.

Prior to making your entrance, you should rig fenders on both sides of your boat and have lines ready at both the bow and the stern. Although many locks, such as the St. Lucie Lock, have lines available where they want you to tie up, you should be prepared and have your own lines should you need them.

Once you have entered the lock, like the two boats pictured here, the lockmaster will indicate where he or she wants you to stop. In the case of the St. Lucie lock, the lockmaster drops you two lines; one for the bow and one for the stern. Be careful as the lines are dropped and don’t let them hit you in the face. You should hold your arms outstretched and the lockmaster will drop the lines on your arms. You should take a wrap around a cleat on both the bow and stern and have a crew member at each position. Once secure, you should turn off your engine and, if equipped, turn off your radar.

Once all boats are secured in the lock, the lock gate that you entered is closed and the gate at the other end of the lock is opened slightly to allow water from the higher level into the lock in order to raise the boats in the lock to the new level. (Or out, lowering the water level, depending on the direction you are traveling.) As the water level rises (or falls) the crew members manning the lines on the bow and stern will have to take up the slack to keep the boat stable and in the correct position. You may experience a bit of current pushing the boat around caused by the incoming stream of water. Just be sure your fenders are secure and that your rub rail is not sliding up the side of the lock.

The difference in levels at the St. Lucie lock is approximately 15 feet. It is quite a site to watch; one moment you are looking down on a boat that has entered from the lower level and a few minutes later you are at eye level with the passengers.

Once the lock is at the new level, the exit gates are opened completely. You should start your engine before the lockmaster takes back the lines. Once clear of the lines, follow the direction of the lockmaster and exit the lock slowly. Be cautious of other boat traffic which may be waiting to enter the lock from the other side.

When you are finally clear and underway, take in the fenders.

But I Don’t Want To Be In Charge! (Continued)

The last article focused on suddenly finding yourself in charge of a small outboard vessel, but what if the owner/skipper is suddenly injured, becomes ill or falls overboard on an inboard boat or, worse yet, a large inboard twin engine. Once again, you were just along for the ride, you don’t know anything about the boat, about what to do or how to do it – but…suddenly YOU are in charge. Suddenly, YOU need to know how to run the boat, YOU need to know how to use the emergency equipment, YOU need to know what to do in each situation that requires action. Don’t wait until YOU are suddenly in charge, learn the basics before just “going along for the ride”.

Learn Boating Basics

The basics are the same no matter what size the boat you find yourself on; you need to know the location of the Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), the fire extinguisher(s), emergency signaling devices and other safety gear. You also need to know how to operate the VHF radio and how to lower the anchor. These two items may be your lifeline to safety.

Again, it is a good idea to take a Basic Boating Safety Course even if you don’t own a boat. The more time you take to educate yourself the more likely you will be a hero rather than a hindrance, should an emergency arise.

Pay Attention To The Basics

Rather than just sit there in the “co-pilot” seat looking at the sky and the water, look around, ask questions, watch what the owner/skipper does. This article is not intended to make a novice an experienced boat handler but we hope to at least get the inexperienced person to some level of comfort with what he/she sees around them.

Note the typical cockpit layout below. You have electronic equipment such as a VHF radio, Depth Finder, and GPS. You also have the controls and sensors for operating the boat such as the clutches (which shift gears), the throttles (which control the speed of the engines) and the various gauges which you should monitor as you do in your car.


This layout is for a typical twin engine vessel. A single engine will have only one clutch and one throttle. Pay particular attention to the RED knobs on the throttles. They are so marked to make sure that you don’t forget which you are handling. You wouldn’t want to be in a close quarters situation and think you were shifting from reverse to forward while accidentally pushing the throttle forward instead of the clutch. Hint: When operating clutches on a vessel with the above configuration put both hands on them and don’t let go. This will keep you from accidently grabbing the throtles.

Lesson One: How Do Clutches and Throttles Work

throttle The throttles on a boat act like the accelerator on your car with one exception; You shouldn’t operate them with your feet. The throttles, usually marked with RED knobs, are at idle when they are pulled all the way back toward you. As you move them forward, the fuel supply to the engine(s) is increased and, assuming you are in gear, you move faster.
clutch The clutches, with the black knobs, act like your gear shift. When the lever is standing straight up in the middle you are in neutral. When you push the lever forward you are engaging the forward gear and when you pull the lever back you are engaging the reverse gear.

Important: Never change gears without first pulling the throttles to idle speed (neutral)!

Lesson Two: How Does An Anchor Windlass Work

The vessel on which you find yourself suddenly in charge may or may not have an anchor windlass (assists in raising and lowering the anchor by electric motor). If it does not, then the anchoring is fairly straightforward as outlined here . However, if you find yourself on a vessel with an anchor windlass the steps are the same, just the release and retrieval of the anchor are different.

anchor windlass The picture at left is a typical small boat (38′) electric anchor windlass. The first step in operating such a system is to make sure that you have power to the windlass.

Normally, when underway the main breaker to the windlass will be turned on but there is usually a switch in the cockpit which disables the power temporarily. This is so that you don’t accidentally step on the up and down switches on the deck while underway or while handling lines on the bow. Make sure that the cockpit switch is on.

Notice that the anchor rode (chain/line that attaches the anchor to the boat) is cleated off on the port side to secure the anchor up and that the remainder of the rode leads through the “hawspipe” (to the left of the “UP” switch) into the anchor locker.

The first step to lowering the anchor is to remove the cap from the hawespipe. As a rule of thumb, you want to put out anchor rode which is 7 to 10 times the water depth. Pull enough anchor rode out of the locker and lay it out neatly up and down the deck.

Next, uncleat the anchor rode on the port cleat which was holding the anchor securely and recleat the rode at the maximum amount of scope you expect to let out. Make sure the boat is completely stopped and, once the rode is cleated, you simply step on the down button and the windlass will lower the anchor. Make sure that you keep your hands and feet clear so you don’t get tangled in the anchor rode and get pulled off the vessel.

Lesson Three: How Does A VHF Radio Work

The vessel’s VHF radio is fairly simple to operate and if the owner/skipper was operating legally, it should already be tuned to channel 16 which is the hailing and distress frequency. For more information on VHF radio procedures look at Marine Radio Procedures in the Nautical Know How Tips Archive. In order to call for assistance, hold down the “transmit” button on the side of the microphone and speak directly into the mike. Once you have delivered your message, release the button and wait for a response.

Let’s explore two different scenarios in which you might find yourself. Whether you are in a single engine or twin engine boat really doesn’t matter. As was mentioned above, we aren’t going to make you boathandlers, just emergency situation solvers.

Situation One

You have just left the marina and are heading out for a day of coastal cruising. The owner is operating the boat through the well marked channel and has explained to you that it is important to keep within the channel which has sufficient depth to safely operate. He/she has shown you how to read the depth finder and you find that the channel has a consistent depth of 8 feet.

Suddenly the owner, who doesn’t look so good all of a sudden, collapses and falls out of the chair behind the wheel. What should you do?

Your first reaction should be to try and get the owner, now victim, to acknowledge his or her situation. Ask if they are okay. Even if they are unconscious and not breathing, there is nothing you can do until you have control of the boat.

You should first take off all power and shift to neutral. While the boat coasts to a stop try to steer toward the edge of the channel. Assuming you are not in immediate danger of drifting out of the channel or running into another vessel, check the condition of the victim again.

Let’s assume they have simply fainted and are still breathing and have a pulse. Attempt to contact the marina that you just left via VHF radio and advise them of the situation. Explain that you are not experienced and that you need immediate assistance. Give them your location by noting the latitude and longitude on your GPS or simply note the channel marker number that you might be closest to.

Depending on your comfort level in actually operating the vessel, you should either consider anchoring, tending to the victim and waiting for help or putting the vessel in forward and turning the vessel to return to the marina. If you chose the latter, do so under control. You don’t necessarily need to go at full idle but don’t overdo the speed. Remember, boats don’t have brakes and you can only stop them by running into something, running aground, coasting to a stop in neutral, or shifting to reverse at full idle.

Situation Two

You are offshore, within sight of land, and headed for a favorite fishing spot that the owner has programmed into the GPS. In this case the owner is a he and he tells you to take the wheel while he goes to relieve himself. No problem, anyone can steer a boat- so you settle in as commanded.

The water is not too rough but an occasional wave that is considerably bigger than the rest comes along and tosses the boat slightly. Suddenly you hear a scream and a splash and look aft to find that the owner was thrown overboard off the stern by that last unexpected wave. What should you do?

You should first pull the throttles to idle and simultaneously shift the clutches to neutral. Immediately throw the Type IV throwable device in the direction of the victim in the water. Try to keep focused on the individual in the water. Don’t lose sight of him.

Once you have something that floats in the water in the vicinity of the victim it is time to attempt the rescue. After making sure the victim is clear of the props, shift the clutch(s) into forward and at idle speed make a U-turn and head back toward the victim in the water.

Make sure to turn the bow toward a person in the water, swinging the stern (and props) away from them. Since he is conscious and can swim, don’t get too close. Approach from downwind so that he floats down to you, not the boat floating down on the victim.

Be sure to shift to neutral well before approaching the victim and coast to a stop short of him. From here, try to throw a line and a PFD to the victim in the water. Once you have him attached to the boat, DO NOT use the clutches.


The two scenarios above were dangerous but obviously could have been much worse. For instance, what if the person in the first scenario wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse and what if you didn’t notice the person in the second scenario go overboard? What would you do then? Give it some thought, it could happen.

Adventures in Galveston Bay

My husband and I own a small trawler. It’s a 34 footer, with a single 135 hp Ford Lehman diesel and a 4.5 kW generator. We draw 4 feet, and carry radar, 2 Lorans, and 2 VHF radios, plus some other assorted equipment. My husband, Reggy, has been sailing for over 35 years. I am new to boating, and have only 8 months experience, all with this particular boat. Reggy has been teaching me navigation, and I have picked up some skills from reading on my own, and of course the Nautical Know How course.

It started out innocently enough. We set out Friday afternoon March 6 from Seabrook about 1600, to go fishing off the Galveston jetties. We were to leave Friday night since we are in the slower trawler than our friend Lloyd, who has a gas-powered Chris Craft. We planned to rendezvous with Lloyd, his son, and his friend the next morning. The jetties are an area at the entrance to the Bolivar Roads Channel, with an intersection of the Houston Ship Channel, and the Galveston Ship Channel all making a “Y.”

It’s a four to five hour trip down there, which would put us in the area at about 2000 hours. Reggy had wanted to anchor for the night over a hump between the jetties where the water is only 5 to 8 feet deep. The fishing would be good there. I argued for anchoring outside the Bob Smith Marina. My real preference was for Lakewood South at Offats Bayou where the showers are hot and you can tie the boat to the pilings at the pier, and plug into shore power. I’m a wus. Reggy said it was too far away from the fishing spot. As we left Seabrook, it was still undecided.

As darkness fell over the ship channel, dense fog started rolling in. Light precipitation further reduced visibility. Some of the markers in the channel are missing, having been taken out by stray barges. For 20 minutes, we were not sure where we were. We could “see” big ships on our radar, but it’s still unnerving when they loom up huge out of the fog. Finally, after hurried re-calculations of our position, and lots of worrying, we saw the Bolivar ferries crossing in the distance. Normally, the ferries are a hazard to be avoided. I have never loved the ferries so much! We traveled up to where we saw these boats, and followed them in. It was decided we would be safer in the area next to the Bob Smith Marina for the evening than out in the jetties.

We set the anchor about 150 feet out from the white painted section of the marina wall. Nearer shore there is an unpainted section of wall, where the charts show the bottom depth much shallower. We settled in for the night for a much needed rest.

I awoke around midnight because the boat was rolling from work-boat wakes, a whole lot more than it had been rolling earlier. Thump!!! went a noise out on the aft cabin deck. We looked outside to find we had drug anchor in the night and had drifted nearly into the Galveston channel. Those big wakes were from work-boats, traveling right next to us at high rates of speed! The thump was from losing our molded plastic lawn chairs overboard. (The next ones will be tied down.) We moved the boat back nearer shore, right next to the unpainted section of wall around the marina. My sleep was uneasy after that… I dreamed we were in Marrakech, buying hedge-hog chili from a street vendor who was trying to drug us and rob us.

By daylight the fog had not dissipated. If anything it was worse. We listened to NOAA weather radio, and heard that it was not predicted to abate until late afternoon. We thought we saw the sun several times trying to peek out. I tried in vain to reach our friend Lloyd on the VHF radio to see if he was still planning to make the trip, and got no response. At 1100 Lloyd called on the cell phone and said his crew had mutinied because of the weather. Smart…

Shortly after that we decided to up anchor and go around the corner to the bait shop for some bait, then return to where we had anchored overnight for some fishing. Traveling back from the shop, Reggy decided we should go ahead out to the jetties; he thought it would be good for my First Mate Training. We plotted our course, calculated our positions, and set out again in the fog. The tow boat captains we heard talking on the VHF were all saying it was so hazardous out that they were staying put.

We discovered our VHF on the flying bridge would not call out, which is why we couldn’t hail Lloyd on it. We still had one VHF working on the lower nav station. Once again big ships would loom suddenly out of the fog. Many were anchored. My husband, who is crazy, continued on.

We found that hump we were looking for. Went right to it. The current resisted our efforts to anchor on it, however, and carried us downcurrent as fast as we could get the anchor overboard. I could vaguely see the rock groins off in the fog, and could definitely hear the surf crashing into the rocks. Not a very comfortable feeling. Off the hump all we could catch were hardheads. At this point Reggy was more amenable to going to Offat’s Bayou to try the fishing there.

Arriving at Offat’s late in the afternoon, we discovered that our generator had gone down. As we did not bring the shore power cords, initially intending to swing on the hook overnight, this was indeed a problem. I told you I was a wus.

Luckily we carry spare parts for everything. After diagnosing a water pump problem (there was no water discharging from the exhaust, just smoke), we were able to fix the generator and get everything up and running again. At last, safe at Lakewood South, with refrigeration and all the comforts of a trawler.

During the night I again awoke from unusual noises. The boat’s lines needed adjusting due to the heavy winds and thunderstorms that were happening. Reggy got up and tended to that problem, while I returned to another uneasy sleep. We were anchored across from the Galveston airport, the same airport that had several hangars leveled from tornadoes a couple of weeks ago. I thought I could hear tornadoes most of the night.

Next morning the sky was a clear blue, with only a few clouds. I thought we were home free. After listening to NOAA weather radio, we found that small craft warnings were in effect. A Canadian cold front was descending upon us, with winds gusting up to 30 miles per hour. Seas were in the 6 – 8 foot range. There was supposed to be a lull midmorning, with conditions worsening as the day wore on.

I suggested we call someone to come get us, leave the boat tied with extra lines, then come back later in the week to bring it back to Seabrook. Reggy thought it best we make a run for it during the lull. We stowed everything (we thought) that would bounce around, both out on the weather decks, and down below decks. My frame of reference for stowing things was a previous trip in choppy water, where a few things bounced around, but nothing serious.

After leaving the Offat’s channel, conditions got really bad. We started out the trip steering from the flying bridge for best visibility. The boat was being rolled very far over on its side each time a big wave would hit, which was every four seconds. This being my first experience with rough weather on board a boat, I hung over the side and kept telling myself I would not get sick. I heard a ripping sound. It was the bimini top starting to tear away from the stainless tubing that holds it in place. The VHF radio at the upper nav station was out. At Pelican Island cut we decided it might be smarter to steer from the lower nav station. I only THOUGHT this was bad. Things got worse.

In short, it took six hours to get to Seabrook. Six hours of pounding into it. This was better than being shoved over sideways. Waves were six to eight feet. Winds were gusting at 40 m.p.h. The boat would lurch into the air, then crash back down with a vengeance, bow in the water, as water sprayed up over the windshield, completely obscuring vision. One second later the next wave would hit, water streaming everywhere. Four seconds later the whole process would start anew.

The tugboats we encountered did not have good maneuverability either, and one pushed us almost onto Redfish bar. Close to Marker 64, which is where we normally like to cut across the bay to the Clear Creek Channel, a ship was pushing us toward the dredge barge that is sitting there taking up half the channel. Between the dredge taking up half, and the ship taking up the other half, there was not much room for us, and we were having trouble controlling the boat in the waves. That provided more than a few tense moments.

The whole six hour trip water was coming in the windows where the slide part of the glass overlaps. These will be replaced forthwith. The oven door would open itself with a bang, and knock over the trash can. After a short bit I started throwing everything that was flying around in there down into the forward cabin where it could hit no one. Everything in the boat is in a different place than it started out. The TV crashed face down on the deck, VCR right behind it. Everything that was not lashed down or stowed, and many things that were lashed down, became projectiles. Halfway home I asked Reggy if he was doing all right, as he had been doing the bulk of the steering. He replied that he thought it was all kind of exhilarating. Now we know he is crazy. The bimini top is in shreds, with rags of sunbrella fabric hanging off the stainless tubing, which is bent at odd angles.

We were a pathetic sight, limping back up the Clear Creek Channel, rags from the bimini flapping in the breeze, stainless tubing sticking out every direction. Sackett Rescue met us mid-channel, in part, I think, to see what kind of idiots would be out on a day like this. He told us via the working VHF radio to stay to the green side of the channel, as the West winds had blown much of the water out of the bay, and it was shallowed up on the red side.

We were lucky.

Several lessons learned from this:

1. Carry lots of spares….parts, radio, shore power cord always, backup Loran or GPS (our preference is Loran).

2. ALWAYS check the weather radio before heading out. Check for several days, not just the day of departure, if planning an extended stay. Then keep checking.

3. Learn your navigation skills well before you ever venture out in iffy weather, if you venture out at all in it. You may be required to make split second decisions.

4. Tie everything down. Stow everything securely. If it can’t be stowed, it doesn’t need to be on the boat. Leave nothing on deck. Even the anchor chain pounded a raw spot in my re-finished teak deck.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn. I hope I’ll wait awhile before attempting to learn this way again.


Owner’s Name Propulsion: check Outboard
check I/O
check Inboard
check Single Screw
check Twin Screw
check Outboard Gas
check I/O & Inbd. Gas
check Diesel
Boat Name Engine Type
Boat Type/
Boat Color Route
Safety Equip.
(Beyond Req.)
Expected Return Date & Time Date/Time to call search

Phone# of Local U.S.C.G. Station

If trailering: Automobile License Plate #
VHF Call
Phone #s
Person in Command Address and phone
Mate Address and phone
Special Medical Concerns
Other Persons Onboard: Name, address and phone

Clean Boating – How to do Your Part

Environmental Concerns:

Petroleum in or on the water is harmful and, in some cases, fatal to aquatic life. Benzene, a carcinogen, is in gasoline. Oil contains zinc, sulfur, and phosphorous.

Once petroleum is introduced into the water, it may float at the surface, evaporate into the air, become suspended in the water column or settle to the sea floor. Floating petroleum is particularly noxious because it reduces light penetration and the exchange of oxygen at the water’s surface. Floating oil also contaminates the microlayer. The microlayer refers to the uppermost portion of the water column. It is home to thousands of species of plants, animals, and microbes. The abundance of life in the microlayer attracts predators: seabirds from above and fish from below. Pollution in the microlayer, thus, has the potential to poison much of the aquatic food web.

Also worth noting, a single pint of oil released onto the water can cover one acre of water surface area.

The Law

Because of the harm associated with petroleum, the discharge of oil is absolutely prohibited. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act prohibits the discharge of oil or oily waste into or upon the navigable waters of the United States or the waters of the contiguous zone if such discharge causes a film or sheen upon, or discoloration of, the surface of the water, or causes a sludge or emulsion beneath the surface of the water. Violators are subject to a penalty of $5,000.

The United States Coast Guard must be notified anytime a spill produces a sheen on the water. Call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. Report the location, source, size, color, substance, and time of the spill. Failure to report a spill may result in fines.

The Clean Water Act (33 CFR 153.305) also prohibits the use of soaps or other dispersing agents to dissipate oil on the water or in the bilge without the permission of the Coast Guard. Soaps, emulsifiers and dispersants cause the petroleum to sink in the water column and mix with sediments where they will remain for years. Also, the soaps themselves are pollutants. You may be fined up to $25,000 per incident for the unauthorized use of soap or other dispersing agents on the water or in the bilge.

Fueling Practices

Gas or diesel may be spilled during the act of fueling: as backsplash out the fuel intake or as overflow out the vent fitting. Spills of this sort harm aquatic life, waste money, and can result in stains on the hull and damage to the gel coat and striping. Follow these tips to avoid problems:

  • Fill tanks to no more than 90 percent capacity–gas that is drawn from cool storage tanks will expand as it warms up onboard your vessel.
  • To determine when the tank is 90 percent full, listen to the filler pipe, use a sounding stick (if possible), and be aware of your tank’s volume.
  • Rather than filling your tank upon your return to port, wait and fill it just before leaving on your next trip. This practice will reduce spills due to thermal expansion because the fuel will be used before it has a chance to warm up.
  • Fill portable tanks ashore where spills are less likely to occur and easier to clean up.
  • Use oil absorbent pads to catch all drips.
  • Slow down at the beginning and end of fueling.

Bilge Maintenance and Oil Changes

Engine oil tends to accumulate in bilges. If no precautions are taken, the oil is pumped overboard along with the bilge water. Discharging oily water is illegal. To avoid fines and to protect water quality, follow these tips:

  • Keep your engine well tuned to minimize the amount of oil that is released. Be sure there are no leaking seals, gaskets or hoses.
  • If you change your own oil, purchase a non-spill pump to draw crankcase oils out through the dipstick tube and slip a plastic bag over used oil filters prior to their removal to capture any drips. Hot drain the filter by punching a hole in the dome end and draining for 24 hours. Recycle the collected oil. Recycle the metal canister if practical. If not, dispose in your regular trash.
  • Place oil absorbent materials or a bioremediating bilge boom in the bilge.
  • Place an oil absorbent pad under the engine.
  • Replace oil absorbent materials regularly.
  • Look for contractors or marinas that offer a bilge pumpout service.
  • Do not treat oily water with detergents. Soaps pollute and make clean up impossible. You may be fined up to $25,000 for using soaps to dissipate oil.

Disposal of Oil Absorbent Materials

The disposal of used oil absorbent material depends on what type of product it is and how it was used:

  • Standard absorbents that are saturated with gasoline may be air dried and reused.
  • Standard absorbents saturated with oil or diesel may be wrung out over oil recycling bins (if they are saturated with oil or diesel only!) and reused. Alternatively, they should be double bagged with one plastic bag sealed inside of another and tossed in your regular trash.
  • Bioremediating bilge booms may be disposed in your regular trash as long as they are not dripping any liquid. Because the microbes need oxygen to function, do not seal them in plastic bags.

Emissions Control

Marine engines–especially 2-stroke outboard motors–produce the highest average level of hydrocarbon exhaust emissions after lawn and garden equipment. Hydrocarbon emissions contribute to ground level ozone, a known health risk. Follow these tips to help your engine operate as efficiently as possible:

  • Use the gas to oil ratio recommended by the engine manufacturer. Too much oil can foul spark plugs and too little can lead to increased engine wear or even failure.
  • Use premium two-cycle engine oil (TC-W3 or TC-W4). Premium oils improve engine performance and reduce pollution because they burn cleaner, contain more detergents, and prevent formation of carbon deposits.
  • Use gasoline with the octane level recommended by the engine manufacturer.

Preventative Equipment

Products are available commercially which can help you prevent spills and reduce emissions:

  • Install a fuel/air separator along your vent line. These devices allow air, but not fuel to escape through a vent opening.
  • Attach a safety nozzle to portable gas cans used to fill outboard engines. These nozzles automatically stop the flow of fuel when the receiving tank is full.
  • To prevent oily bilge water from being discharged, install a bilge pump switch that leaves an inch or two of water in the bilge. Alternatively, connect a bilge water filter to your vessel’s bilge pump. Filters will remove oil, fuel and other petroleum hydrocarbons from the water.
  • When it is time to buy a new engine, select a fuel efficient, low emission model.
  • Attach a container to the external vent fitting to collect overflow. There are products on the market that may be attached to the hull with suction cups. A rubber seal on the container fits over the fuel vent allowing the overflow to enter the container. Fuel captured in this manner can be added to the next boat to fuel.

In Case of a Spill

  • Stop the flow.
  • Contain the spill.
  • Call the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at (800) 424-8802.